Jesse Biddle's comeback trail brings him back to a familiar place

Jesse Biddle's comeback trail brings him back to a familiar place

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Prospect status in the game of baseball is fragile and unpredictable.
 
A reminder of that walked down the tunnel from the visiting clubhouse and sat in the first-base dugout at Spectrum Field late Saturday morning.
 
Jesse Biddle had come back to the place where it all started.
 
He still had that friendly smile and effervescent personality. But the uniform was different and the elbow had a surgical scar on it.
 
Now a member of the Atlanta Braves organization, the former Phillies first-round draft pick made the trip to Clearwater and for the first time since August 13, 2015 -- the night the elbow pain became too much to bear -- pitched an inning in a competitive game.
 
It all seemed just a little surreal that Biddle's first game since having surgery on October 14, 2015, came against the organization that he spent six sometimes hopeful, sometimes frustrating seasons with, but as the left-hander, now 25, pointed out, "It's just one of those things. The baseball world is pretty funny that way."
 
The Phillies sent Biddle to the Pittsburgh Pirates in a nondescript trade in February 2016 and he was claimed on waivers by the Braves a couple of months later. For days, he'd known that the schedule called for him to pitch Saturday, but he was unsure whether it would be at home against the Marlins or on the road against the Phillies. He found out Friday that he'd be making the trip to Clearwater and was elated.
 
"At the end of the day I just want to pitch in a game for the first time in a long time," he said. "But I was definitely rooting for this one, for sure.
 
"I feel really good and I'm excited to face these red jerseys, for sure."
 
Biddle engaged in some light-hearted "trash-talking" via text with former teammate Tommy Joseph on Friday night and as if on cue, Joseph was the first hitter that Biddle faced since that night 18 months ago when his elbow throbbed and he was throwing 83 mph for the Phillies' Triple A team.
 
Biddle walked Joseph on five pitches then came back and struck out Dylan Cozens on a 93 mph fastball and Aaron Altherr on a 94 mph fastball. He ended his inning of work by getting J.P. Crawford on a groundout.
 
It was a very nice outing for any pitcher, never mind one with a surgically repaired elbow pitching for the first time in a year and half.

Cozens and Crawford are what Biddle used to be -- top prospects with the Phillies.
 
Prospects excite the imagination of fans. The excitement that followed Biddle during his time in the Phillies' system had a little extra electricity because he was a local kid who had grown up in Mount Airy, who had attended the 2008 World Series as a fan, who had pitched at Germantown Friends and who had been selected by his hometown team with the 27th overall pick in the 2010 draft.
 
He topped out in Triple A with the club in 2015, his path to Citizens Bank Park blocked by poor control and the elbow injury.
 
Biddle said he was surprised when the Phillies traded him, but he came to terms with it quickly.
 
"Once I got (to Pittsburgh) and I actually put on a different uniform, I realized that there are 29 other teams and that there are a lot of really good coaches out there and a lot of places that I'm happy to be part of," he said. "And now I've found my way to the Braves and it feels like home, really. It's been a really nice journey and I'm glad I found my way here."
 
It's never easy for a highly touted young player to succeed in his hometown. The expectations are high from the start. Add in the presence of family and friends living and breathing on every pitch and the expectations can be smothering.
 
But Biddle said the pressures of trying to succeed at home were never a problem for him.
 
"Honestly, the more I look back on it the more I realize it was just like anywhere else," he said. "Obviously it was a little different for me playing minor-league baseball and having friends and family be able to come to every game, but I really don’t believe it dictated anything that happened while I was here.
 
"I think that any love and support that I got was just friends and family being friends and family and I couldn’t have asked for anything different from the Phillies or anything different from my support system.
 
"It ended up working out the way it did and there are no hard feelings anywhere. I'm really happy with where I'm at and I know the Phillies' organization is looking really good right now."
 
The Braves have shown faith in Biddle. They claimed him on waivers a year ago, put him on their 40-man roster and paid him the major-league minimum salary of $507,500 even though they knew he wouldn't throw a pitch in 2016. They viewed him as a lottery ticket, a still-young pitcher with raw talent that had a chance to put it together.
 
Biddle spent all of last year at the Braves' facility in Florida, rehabbing his elbow after Tommy John surgery. The Braves will continue to go slow with him for the next few months. He will get his innings in the minors and, who knows, might still end up pitching at Citizens Bank Park someday, just not with the team he originally dreamed of representing.
 
"Honestly, I just want to play major league baseball," Biddle said. "And I want to play for the Braves."

Best of MLB: Royals storm back in 9th inning for win over Blue Jays

Best of MLB: Royals storm back in 9th inning for win over Blue Jays

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Whit Merrifield hit a two-run, two-out double that capped a four-run rally in the ninth inning, and the Kansas City Royals beat the Toronto Blue Jays 5-4 on Friday night to reach .500 for the first time since April.

With their 10th win in 12 games, the Royals improved to 36-36. They were 6-6 before play on April 20, then went on a nine-game losing streak that night and dropped as low as 10-20, seven games out of first place. They trail AL Central-leading Cleveland by three games.

Toronto took a 2-1 lead into the ninth and extended it when Josh Donaldson and Justin Smoak hit RBI singles off Joakim Soria (4-2) (see full recap).

Dodgers cruise past Rockies for 8th straight win
LOS ANGELES -- Yasiel Puig homered and left-hander Alex Wood kept his record perfect as the streaking Los Angeles Dodgers defeated the NL West rival Colorado Rockies 6-1 on Friday night for their eighth consecutive victory.

The Dodgers have won 14 of their last 15 games. They have scored at least six runs in seven consecutive games.

Wood (8-0) allowed one run in six innings. He gave up only three hits and walked two, retiring his last 10 batters.

The Dodgers have homered in 15 consecutive games, tied for fourth-longest streak in club history. The last time they managed it was in 1977. Their record is 24 consecutive games with a home run.

Rookie left-hander Kyle Freeman (8-4) allowed five runs and a career-high 10 hits and three walks in six innings (see full recap).

Torreyes hits walk-off single to lift Yanks over Rangers
NEW YORK -- Ronald Torreyes hit a game-winning single with two outs in the 10th inning after midnight, and the New York Yankees edged the Texas Rangers 2-1 on a rainy Friday night for just their second win in 10 games.

Brett Gardner lined a tying home run with one out in the New York ninth off closer Matt Bush. After Chasen Shreve (2-1) escaped a bases-loaded jam in the top of the 10th, Torreyes kept the Yankees atop the AL East.

Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka kept it scoreless into the late innings in the first major league meeting between the Japanese stars (see full recap).

Mark Leiter Jr. picks up 1st big-league win as Phillies cool off Diamondbacks

Mark Leiter Jr. picks up 1st big-league win as Phillies cool off Diamondbacks

BOX SCORE

PHOENIX -- The clubhouse was beginning to clear and still the star of the game had not yet emerged from the shower.

"He's in there cleaning the guacamole and mayo out of his hair," Cameron Rupp said with a laugh.

Eventually Mark Leiter Jr. made it out of the shower and over to his locker where equipment man Phil Sheridan presented him with three game balls, souvenirs from not only his first big-league start but his first big-league win, as well.

"It's something I'll never forget," the 26-year-old right-hander from Toms River, N.J., said pitching six shutout innings to backbone the Phillies' 6-1 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on Friday night (see Instant Replay).

"I’ll be honest, I was probably more excited for this than I was for my major-league debut. To go out there and contribute to a win is what I was hoping to do."

Leiter, a 22nd-round draft pick by the Phillies in 2013, had never made it onto the 40-man roster until the Phils needed a reliever in mid-April and gave him a shot after he'd gotten off to a good start at Triple A. He spent six weeks in the majors and made 12 relief appearances before being sent back to Triple A the first weekend of June.

Leiter worked as a starter during his time back at Triple A. He pitched six shutout innings against Syracuse in his last start and got the call to come back up when Jerad Eickhoff went on the disabled list with a back strain earlier this week.

Leiter's return assignment was not easy: The Diamondbacks are one of the best hitting clubs in the majors and the best on their home turf. They entered the game scoring 6.48 runs per game at home and with an .886 OPS, both major-league bests.

None of that fazed Leiter.

"In my opinion, this is the big leagues and it doesn’t matter who the lineup is," he said. "They all have the ability to hit and hit well. They’re all big-leaguers and they've earned their right to be big-leaguers. I was just trying to pitch to the team you're facing that day."

Leiter trusted his low-90s fastball and commanded it well. He mixed in his secondary stuff and kept the D-backs off-balance with his splitter. He scattered three hits, walked one and struck out five. He showed no fear.

"Great performance," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He made it look easy. He made a lot of good hitters look bad with his split. For him to come up and do that to a real good hitting team was outstanding."

Leiter's dad, Mark Sr., pitched for the Phillies in 1997 and 1998. He made the trip in from New Jersey to watch his son's first big-league start.

"I guess they found him on TV," Leiter said. "That's what they were telling me. I'm sure he wasn't too pleased they found him because he was probably stressed out. But I think it was probably worth him coming out here. He's probably happy."

How could he not be?

Leiter's teammates were definitely happy.

They treated Leiter to a raucous postgame dousing that included as many different condiments as could be found in the clubhouse dining room. One laughing player had a bottle of ketchup in his hands. Another had a squeeze bottle of honey.

And then there was the guacamole and mayo that Rupp mentioned.

"In his first major-league start, to come up here and do that in what is known as a good hitters’ park - that proves Mark is pretty strong between the ears," Tommy Joseph said. "He's been one of those under-the-radar guys that people have doubted, but his mentality and ability to prepare are second to none."

Joseph played a big role in the win, smacking a two-run homer in the ninth inning to give the Phillies some breathing room. Maikel Franco also had a big home run and Freddy Galvis contributed an important triple that led to a Phillies' run in the first inning.

The Phils still have the worst record in the majors at 24-48, but they've won two in a row, both on the back of good starting pitching performances. Aaron Nola pitched 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball on Thursday.

And Leiter delivered on Friday.

"It's good to see those back-to-back," Mackanin said.